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White elephant spotted in Sri Lanka

Albino pachyderm may boost conservation efforts.

A rare albino elephant has been spotted roaming Sri Lanka's Ruhunu National Park, the first recorded sighting in the country.

The pale-skinned pachyderm, thought to be around 11 years old, lives with a 17-strong herd of adult females and youngsters. Tracking the herd's movements could help researchers devise new strategies for the protection and management of Sri Lanka's elephants.

"This is a rare and excellent opportunity for research," says Dayananda Kariyawasam, director-general of the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Sri Lanka, which is now monitoring the animal's progress.

The elephant, named Sue after the Sinhalese word for 'white', has been seen several times in the past few weeks. "She's just hanging around," says veterinary surgeon Vijitha Berera from Sri Lanka's Department of Wildlife Conservation, where the sightings were made. "We hope that she might be pregnant," he adds.

There were rumours of sightings of an albino elephant in the same area about seven years ago, although its existence was never confirmed. Berera believes this to be the same animal.

Dung test

Albinism is extremely rare in the wild. The condition arises when the body fails to produce melanin, the pigment that gives hair, skin and eyes their colour. A variety of genetic mutations lead to the condition, which crops up occasionally in birds, reptiles and mammals.

Researchers are hoping to test dung from the albino elephant to determine which mutation she has.

We hope that she might be pregnant Vijitha Berera , Centre for Conservation and Research in Colombo

In most cases, the genes for albinism are recessive, meaning that an animal must inherit two copies of the gene (one from each parent) to become albino. So unless the Sri Lankan white elephant finds a male with a similar gene, she is unlikely to give birth to an albino offspring.

But this is becoming more likely, says Mary Pearl, President of the Wildlife Trust. As elephant numbers shrink and inbreeding becomes more common, genetic anomalies are more likely to arise. "So we may see more white elephants in the future."

Although Sue appears healthy, lack of pigment can make some animals susceptible to eye and skin problems. Snowflake, an albino gorilla that lived in Barcelona Zoo in Spain for 37 years, suffered from skin cancer and was put to sleep last year.

Enchanted creature

In Sri Lanka, deforestation is eating away at the elephants' natural habitat. Most of the country's 4,000 elephants dwell outside protected areas and often wander into cultivated areas in search of food.

When this happens, they are often shot, says Berera. About three elephants die per week in this way.

But Berera hopes that the recent discovery will remain safe. "Most people believe that white elephants bring good luck, so she should be left alone," he says.


Additional information

Centre for Conservation and Research in Colombo

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Department of Wildlife Conservation, Sri Lanka

Zoological Society of London

Wildlife Trust

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Pilcher, H. White elephant spotted in Sri Lanka. Nature (2004).

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